With casual racing fans likely to pass on Saturday’s Belmont Stakes with no Triple Crown on the line, that means extra elbow room for the rest of us as we savor a glorious stakes-packed card at Belmont Park that could give the final day of the Breeders’ Cup a run for its money.
The Belmont Stakes, the 1½-mile marathon that concludes the Triple Crown, is a true anachronism. It’s contested at a distance that most of these 3-year-olds will never run again at an expansive track with turns so wide they resemble fallow cornfields. But as “The Test of the Champion,” it is still held in high regard by horseplayers, even when there is no Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner trying to add his name to the history books.
And that’s just one of many highlights on the 13-race card at Big Sandy.
The Grade 1 stakes begin early, with the Just A Game in Race 4, and come fast and furious thereafter: The Ogden Phipps, The Jaipur Invitational, the Acorn, the Woody Stephens, the Metropolitan Mile, the Manhattan and finally the Belmont Stakes. Toss in the $150,000 Easy Goer, run as Race 3, and the Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap as the nightcap and you have roughly six hours of nearly nonstop stakes action featuring top horses in virtually every division.
I could easily write a column about each of these races, but the #RJhorseracing handicappers are focused this week on the Metropolitan Mile and the Belmont Stakes, so we’ll just have to leave it at that.
#RJhorseracing featured races
While the Belmont Stakes deservedly gets top billing, many handicappers are just as excited about the Met Mile, which attracted nine of the best sprinters and routers in the land.
Most of the attention will be focused on the 5-2 morning line favorite McKinzie, who has excelled at distances from 7 furlongs to 1⅛ mile for trainer Bob Baffert, and the speedy second choice Mitole (3-1), winner of six straight sprints for trainer Steve Asmussen.
But the competition hardly ends there: Coal Front and Thunder Snow, returning from triumphs in Dubai in the Godolphin Mile and Dubai World Cup, respectively, the speedy Promises Fulfilled, hard-knocking Firenze Fire and Gulfstream Park Mile winner Prince Lucky all have the credentials to spring an upset. And if you liked either of the other two horses in the field — the late-running Tale of Silence or the enigmatic Pavel — I wouldn’t try to talk you off them.
The #RJhorseracing handicappers, however, aren’t feeling anywhere near as conflicted. They strongly endorse McKinzie in this spot, with Mitole and Thunder Snow (5-1) in the minor placings.
As is my wont, I’ll try to beat the favorite with Firenze Fire (4-1), a perfect 3-for-3 at Belmont, with McKinzie to place and Thunder Snow to show.
In the Belmont Stakes, Preakness winner War of Will (2-1) and Tacitus, the 9-5 morning line favorite, will attract the lion’s share of the betting. But there are some other intriguing possibilities in the field who could upend the logical picks, including Everfast, runner-up in the Preakness, the Japanese-bred Master Fencer, Wood Memorial runner-up Tax and Louisiana Derby second-place finisher Spinoff.
The crowd ’cappers are again siding with the chalk, strongly endorsing the fresher Tacitus over War of Will, who will be the only horse in the field to compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown. They’ll try to inject some value into the proposition by using Intrepid Heart (10-1) in third.
“Tacitus took a breather and looks ready to get back to business,” crowd ’capper Joe Mainardi wrote of the crew’s choice.
I agree that Tacitus is the most likely winner, but I’m going to go with another Derby horse who skipped the Preakness: Spinoff (15-1). The Todd Pletcher-trained colt didn’t appear to handle the mud at Churchill Downs, but was on an upward trajectory before that. I’ll use Tacitus and War of Will in the bottom two slots.
Ellis Starr’s Belmont Stakes analysis
As I wrote prior to the Preakness, War of Will has a great deal of competitive spirit. In spite of fighting his jockey in the early stages in a few of his races, when he is asked to run his best he responds nicely. Even after the incident early in the stretch of the Derby, War of Will re-engaged with Maximum Security for a number of strides before tiring. Then, when allowed to make one run in the Preakness, War of Will took the inside path and ran very well to draw off by a length and one-quarter, earning a career-best 107 Equibase Speed Figure. The biggest question I have about War of Will repeating or improving upon his Preakness effort in the Belmont is related to his pedigree and ability to run as well at the distance of 1 1/2 miles. Horses outrun their pedigree all the time, but considering none of the sons or daughters of sire War Front have run well at the distance, on turf or on dirt, I will look elsewhere for my top contenders although I will not discount the chances of War of Will to win the Belmont entirely.
Sir Winston will be my top choice. He may only have a career record of two-for-nine but the second of the two was in the Display Stakes, an important stakes race for 2-year-olds at Woodbine. Returning in February, Sir Winston finished well in the late stages when fourth behind Tax in the Withers Stakes then rallied from 11th to fifth behind Tacitus in the Tampa Bay Derby in March. After a troubled trip when seventh in the Blue Grass Stakes in April and not having enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby, Sir Winston pointed to the Peter Pan Stakes four weeks ago as a prep for this race. Joel Rosario rode Sir Winston in the Peter Pan and will once again be in the saddle in the Belmont. It must be noted in 2014 when Tonalist won the Peter Pan he was ridden by Joel Rosario, who won the Belmont with the colt one month later. Although the 101 Equibase speed figure figure Sir Winston earned in the Peter Pan is a bit shy of the 107 War of Will earned in the Preakness and the same figure Tacitus earned in the Derby, I think Sir Winston can improve more than enough to post the upset in this year’s Belmont.
Master Fencer (JPN) may not have been fully acclimated to U.S. racing when he ran in the Kentucky Derby, especially with a 20 horse field and water being splashed over him. In the Derby, it appeared Master Fencer (JPN) didn’t really know what to do as the field broke so jockey Julien Leparoux just let him drop back to last. As the race went on, Master Fencer (JPN) started to run more confidently and by the end he was rolling on the inside to be beaten just four lengths. Galloping out second on the turn and having put in a series of strong workouts in Kentucky and then at Belmont Park since the Derby, there is a lot of upside for this young colt. Considering his Derby effort earned a 106 figure, I think Master Fencer (JPN) deserves a good deal of respect as a contender in the Belmont Stakes.
Tacitus was also rolling faster than most horses in the last quarter mile of the Derby, earning a career-best 107 figure when beaten just three-quarters of a length for third at the finish. Tacitus had won three races in a row prior to that including the Wood Memorial. In that race the colt recovered from early trouble where he nearly fell, after which many horses may have given up. As a son of Tapit, who sired three recent winners of the Belmont (Tonalist in 2014, Creator in 2016 and Tapwrit in 2017), there is no question Tacitus can get the mile and one-half distance of the Belmont. Trainer Bill Mott won this race in 2010 with Drosselmeyer so he knows what it takes to get a horse ready for this marathon test as well.
In addition to the four horses I think have the bulk of the probability to win this year’s Belmont Stakes Everfast is a horse I think we need to consider for any exacta or trifecta tickets we play. Coming off a career best 105 figure when second in the Preakness, similar to the effort he put in four races before that when second in the Holy Bull, Everfast will be rallying from far back and passing many of the horses who will find the distance to be beyond their range.
The rest of the Belmont Stakes field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Bourbon War (110), Intrepid Heart (103), Joevia (100), Spinoff (100) and Tax (105).